The Asphalt Jungle
In a smog-choked city somewhere in the American Midwest, an aging criminal mastermind, newly released from prison, hatches a plan for a million-dollar jewel heist and draws a wealthy lawyer and a cherry-picked trio of outlaws into his carefully devised but inevitably doomed scheme. Anchored by an abundance of nuanced performances from a gifted ensemble—including a tight-jawed Sterling Hayden and a sultry Marilyn Monroe in her breakout role—this gritty crime classic by John Huston climaxes in a meticulously detailed anatomy of a robbery that has reverberated through the genre ever since. An uncommonly naturalistic view of a seamy underworld, The Asphalt Jungle painstakingly depicts the calm professionalism and toughness of its gangster heroes while evincing a remarkable depth of compassion for their all-too-human fragility, and it showcases a master filmmaker at the height of his powers.
In a welcome surprise Criterion presents John Huston’s influential crime drama The Asphalt Jungle on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 2K restoration scanned from the original 35mm negative.
Yet again the Warner/Criterion partnership pays off, with Criterion delivering another solid black-and-white presentation. It looks really sharp, very pristine, and almost brand new. The image remains crisp and highly detailed throughout, long shots showing some stunning textures in the backgrounds and close-ups on faces delivering every bead of sweat and facial hair with a stunning amount of clarity. Film grain is present but very fine, and it retains a very natural look.
This presentation clearly outdoes the old Warner DVD in terms of clarity and overall film-like quality, but most impressive is the restoration work. A few areas can look a bit faded, weakening the blacks, but overall I don’t recall many blemishes popping up, just some fine scratches here and there; outside of that it looks fairly new. Black levels are decent and contrast is nicely maintained, leading to excellent tonal shifts in the grayscale. It’s a really just a sharp looking image on just about all fronts.
The audio, presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono, is fine though shows its age. Dialogue is clear throughout and voices have some decent fidelity behind them, but there can be the slightest edge at times, and the same can be said about the music. There’s also some audible background noise, including a hiss that gets a bit louder at certain points. Still, there aren’t any noticeable drops, pops, or other bits of damage that stood out.
The film gets a rather stacked special edition, managing to also carry over the supplements from the Warner DVD, like a 56-second archival clip of John Huston talking about the film (the first second or two is inaudible, though) and then an audio commentary by Drew Casper. The Huston clip, though not at all insightful, is fine. The commentary, on the other hand, is a real mixed bag. I’m trying to recall if I’ve listened to a Casper commentary and I honestly can’t remember, but if this represents how he typically delivers commentaries it I’m sure I would remember. It’s not terrible in terms of content, in fact, I actually gleaned a lot from it. It’s just that it’s, well… obnoxious. He exaggerates things, seems to over-emphasize every other word or elongate certain key words in his discussion (“taaaaallll tale!”), go on little tangents that break away from his main talking points, or goes dead silent for long stretches, at least closer to the mid-section. Shockingly it’s not all that willy-nilly and is probably somewhat scripted, suggested by the page notes you can hear Casper flipping through.
Still, despite this, there is some good material in here. He of course talks about the film’s look, Huston’s direction and his career, giving a fairly decent overview spanning his Warner days to his two MGM films (this and Red Badge of Courage), but his track is most interesting when he focuses on the studio politics at MGM at the time. Though the studio as a whole was iffy on this film, it was Louis B. Mayer specifically who seemed to be dead set against the idea of these “B-movies” being made at the studio, and was especially hostile towards The Asphalt Jungle. He was horrified that a Catholic group called the “Legion of Decency” only gave the film a B as opposed to the A-ranges that MGM’s films usually received, suggesting the film was a little too sordid. When the track gets into this material it becomes more interesting. Also helping the track are excerpts from an interview with actor James Whitmore which are dispersed throughout the track. In these comments Whitmore talks about the production, even commenting on his and his wife’s first impressions of Marilyn Monroe, who he recalls being deathly scared on set.
It’s an odd little track and I’m admittedly not entirely sure what to make of it. It can be obnoxious at times but Casper does still fill it with some decent material about the film and the studio system at the time. Still, I do wish Criterion maybe recorded something newer.
But a substantial amount is forgiven for the haphazard commentary with the next supplement, the 119-minute 1983 documentary feature about Sterling Hayden, Pharos of Chaos, directed by Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler. Fairly hard to come by previously in North America, this is a pretty substantial and noteworthy addition to the release (interestingly the documentary has been released on both DVD and Blu-ray in Australia). Material on Hayden is always welcome, especially when they’re primarily interviews with the man; Arrow’s and Criterion’s respective editions of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing featured different interviews with the actor and they were absolutely wonderful. This documentary, though technically about Hayden’s career, is made up primarily of interviews conducted with the actor over a period of a few days on his barge, where Hayden spent the last portion of his life. The filmmakers mention it took them a while to track him down but they were able to find him (with a full nautical beard) and were somewhat stunned by what they discovered.
Hayden actually talks very little about his career, sharing various seafaring stories and whatever other things pop into his head. He only talks a little bit about Hollywood (not too enthusiastically) and also goes into his regrets at “naming names” during the McCarthy hearings, mentioning that his punishment for destroying lives was to “live with it.” Anything about his film work and early life are left mostly to the narrators and stock photos.
The documentary is fascinating, and again anything with Hayden in it is just fine by me, but this one is also a slightly dark and occasionally uncomfortable experience: at this point Hayden is battling alcoholism, admitting as much many times throughout by mentioning that he is “two-thirds sloshed” during one portion and addressing that the filmmakers are inadvertently “capturing alcoholism” with this project. There is even a moment where the filmmakers how up at the agreed time to start filming and Hayden is still passed out. Also, since he is obviously drunk most of the time throughout the film his stories do go on with faint focus and the filmmakers obviously didn’t know where to edit.
It is a great addition to the release and a very welcome surprise, adding even more value to this edition. But it isn’t an easy documentary to watch: it’s painful, even heartbreaking.
(In terms of quality, it looks to be a full high-def presentation but the materials are in fairly rough shape with a number of large scratches and marks with faded colours. I can’t say how it compares to the Australian Blu-ray or DVD as I haven’t seen those editions.)
Criterion then includes some new material, starting with a new interview with historian Eddie Muller, who appears complete with a fedora. Muller fills in some of the gaps on Casper’s commentary about the film’s production, talking in more detail about the original novel (which had more characters and more from the point of view of the police), as well as the career of the novel’s author, W. R. Burnett, who of course was responsible for a number of Warner gangster films from the era. From there he then gets into Huston’s involvement, what he brought to the film, and how the film has influenced countless other works since, like Rififi and even the Ocean’s Eleven remake. It’s a breezy, knowledgeable contribution, running about 24-minutes.
Cinematographer John Bailey—who has now contributed quite a few interviews to Criterion’s releases—appears to talk about cinematographer Harold Rosson, best known for shooting a number of MGM musicals and The Wizard of Oz, and the look of the film he created. He acknowledges that Rosson isn’t as widely recognized because of those musicals, which could have a flat look, but he works here to show that he did have a wide range, which shows in this piece. He talks in detail about the scenes and moments he admires most, particularly how characters are introduced along with some of the longer takes. As usual Bailey provides an engaging and very insightful analysis of the film’s look.
Criterion then digs up an October 10th, 1979 episode of the Canadian television show City Lights, featuring its host, Brian Linehan talking to filmmaker John Huston about his film work. The 48-minute discussion is fairly dry, but the two do touch some interesting subjects, like Huston’s living between Ireland and Mexico, his daughter, Anjelica (who has no interest in getting into acting at the time according to her father), and his autobiography, which he had just finished. They also talk about films he was trying to get made, like adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, though he doesn’t seem to have hope either will get made (he would of course make Under the Volcano about five years later, while Across the River… is apparently being adapted currently into a film starring Pierce Brosnan and directed by Martin Campbell). The conversation picks up a bit more when he talks about the favourites of the films he made, while also touching on The Misfits and working with Marilyn Monroe again, and he confirms a story Casper mentions in his commentary about Monroe’s casting (sort of anyways). He also talks about working with actors, including the likes of Brando, and whatever subject the two beat across. Again, it’s an unfortunately dry discussion, which I blame more on Linehan’s style of interviewing (it’s similar here to a handful of other Linehan interviews I’ve seen) but getting such a lengthy interview with the filmmaker, this one running 48-minutes, is certainly welcome.
Using excerpts from audio interviews he had had over the years with Huston, Gideon Bachmann constructs a 6-minute piece called The Huston Method, trying to keep it fitting to the context of The Asphalt Jungle. Though he isn’t always talking about that film specifically, Huston addresses how he adapts novels, talks about casting his movies, his preference for black and white photography for a film like The Asphalt Jungle, and so forth. It’s obviously sourced from multiple materials but it’s a superbly edited together feature, playing over production photos and clips from the film.
The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer, while the insert features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, who writes about the film’s characters and structure before closing on the effects of the Hollywood Blacklist on a number of people involved with this film.
Despite a couple of shaky features (I’m still not sure what to make of the commentary) it’s a very impressive special edition, one I’m sure Warner wouldn’t have put together themselves. Criterion has really put quite a bit of effort into this one.
Criterion closes off the year on a very strong note with their Blu-ray of The Asphalt Jungle. It provides a stunner of a presentation and an impressive number of supplements, including the previously hard to come by documentary Pharos of Chaos. It’s a superb special edition.